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Independent social workers hit out at Ministry of Justice

Independent social workers (ISWs) are calling on the government to drop plans to slash their court fees in half, claiming that children’s lives will be put in danger. Their fees for acting as expert witnesses in cases involving vulnerable children will be capped at Cafcass rates from October – £33 an hour in London and £30 outside.

At a conference in London this week furious ISWs vented their anger at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) civil servant in charge of family legal aid, insisting that many of them will refuse to do the job at the new rates and that children will be at greater risk in consequence.

“Independent social workers have a really important role in the court system and the likely outcome of this decision is that there will be fewer of them to do the job,” BASW development manager Bridget Robb said later. BASW organised the conference with Nagalro and independent social work agencies ISWA and WillisPalmer.

Conference delegates pressed MoJ head of family legal aid Alan Pitts to abandon the new fees and include ISWs in an ongoing review of payments to all expert witnesses. Pitts, who admitted he had no idea what ISWs do, agreed to a further meeting at the MoJ to discuss their grievances.

Speaking after the confidential conference, delegates were forthright in condemning the government’s actions. Nagalro policy consultant Judith Timms, who, like Ms Robb, spoke at the conference, said there was “confusion and bewilderment” as to why ISWs had been singled out when fees for other experts were still under review. “This is a premature decision and we would like the MoJ to revisit it,” Ms Timms said. “Our very real fear is that independent social work experience will be lost to the courts at a time when children and families desperately need it.”

Pauline Jordan, an independent social worker from Brighton, said that psychologists could charge up to £200 an hour as expert witnesses, compared with an average of £60 an hour for ISWs. She said that the government had picked on ISWs because they lacked the “professional clout” of other court experts. “It was clear from the MoJ civil servant that this decision has not been based on proper research,” Ms Jordan said. “I won’t work for the new rates and all the ISWs I’ve spoken to have said the same thing. It’s insulting.”

ISWA director Phil King said that the 40 ISWs who work for him all have at least ten years’ post-qualification experience. “You may still get ISWs to act as expert witnesses, but whether they will have the level of experience required to meet the needs of the courts is debatable. We’ll be more likely to have tragedies like Baby P,” he said.

Mr King said ISW charges ranged from £25 to £80 an hour, compared with other experts who typically charged in the range £70 to £100. Many delegates pointed out that ISWs are responsible for their own training, equipment and administration, unlike Cafcass social workers who have organisational back-up.

But the senior civil servant, Mr Pitts, denied that ISWs had been singled out, adding that other experts’ fees were under scrutiny. “Ministers have made it clear that we have to control the legal aid bill and experts’ fees are an increasing cost,” he said. “Certainly we’re prepared to talk to people and listen to their concerns, but this decision was taken a long time ago. I don’t accept that the MoJ didn’t have enough information on which to base its decision.”